Dispatches from Blogfrica: Maize n Brew Talks Iowa-Michigan Hoops

Mike Stobe

Ann Arbor is a...something something.

What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of a blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Next up: Zach from Maize n Brew, SB Nation's excellent Michigan blog.

1) I admit, I was pretty skeptical of Michigan's preseason top-5 ranking. I knew they were bringing back some good players (Burke, Hardaway) and had a very highly-touted freshman class coming in, but I thought preseason top-5 was still a stretch. Mea culpa. Michigan has looked fantastic so far this year. What were your expectations for this team, coming into the season? How good did you think they'd be?

I think I was of the same mindset as you, maybe with a bit more optimism. I looked at all the pieces and said, "damn, if they all work out this team could be a beast," with the full expectation that things wouldn't work out perfectly and Michigan would be more of a top-15ish team than a top five.

Then the season started and everything went pretty much according to plan. Burke was even better, Hardaway looked more assertive in his role on offense, the freshmen all stepped in to contribute at or above expectations, and even the rebounding numbers looked much improved over past versions of this team.

I can't say I did or didn't see this coming because I don't obsess enough about basketball to over-analyze the schedule like I do football, but I can say that there were a few games I worried about and Michigan held up just fine in all of them. This team looks as for real as any I can really remember watching (the Fab Five was before my time as a serious sports fan).

2) Iowa appears to be checking out some of the top contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year at the beginning of league play. We saw Cody Zeller earlier this week, Deshaun Thomas is coming up in a few weeks, and of course you guys have Trey Burke. How good has he been this year? His stats are certainly tremendous -- 17.8 ppg, 7.4 apg (and an almost 4:1 assist:turnover ratio), 3.1 rpg, 1.2 spg. What has he done to move his game to another level?

I just wrote in an email to some UM friends: "I'm getting to the point where I'm going to start looking at games Trey Burke has left in a Michigan uniform with the same reverence that I did games Denard had left." I think that about sums it up.

As for what exactly he has done to get to that point, I would say it is a combination of him just maturing in the kinds of ways you expect a sophomore to mature after his first offseason, and the fact that he is now surrounded by even more play makers than he was a year ago, and those guys are perfectly suited to play alongside him.
Burke is an incredible offensive weapon who can not only pass the ball in ways that leave you with your jaw on the floor, but he can create his own offense by getting to the rim, and threatening with the three-point shot -- something that opens up even more passing lanes.

At many times this season it has just felt like Burke was playing in that "on fire" mode that NBA Jam used to have. He just gets it, and he is so comfortable running the show that everything else falls into place. I haven't watched a lot of college basketball this year outside of Michigan, but I have a hard time believing that there is anyone playing at a higher level than Burke right now.

3) They're not the Fab Five, but Michigan's freshman trio of Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Nik Stauskas have still been pretty phenomenal. Robinson and Stauskas are already averaging double-figures, McGary and Robinson are your two leading rebounders, and Stauskas is shooting a blistering 56% from 3-point range. Did you think these freshmen would be this good? Is this a group that will stay together and form the core of a Big Ten title contender for the next few years, or will these guys be looking to bounce to the NBA?

Like I said earlier, there was a part of me that thought "man, if everything comes together..." when I looked at this season, and a big part of that was dependent on the contributions of the freshmen. The funny thing is, that was projecting McGary as a 10-10 type player and Robinson to be Michigan's third option on offense. That isn't to say I was cold on Stauskas, but if you show me the guy who called a true freshman being on pace for several three point records after non-conference play, I'll show you a damn dirty liar. I thought he would see the court and he would be a legit threat from deep. I didn't think he would be this good.

While McGary hasn't seen much time, I can't say I'm all that surprised. While part of me wanted to believe he would be an instant factor, I wasn't totally sold on it, and he wasn't really depended on for that with Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford (when healthy) on the roster as well.

Robinson III has actually flown under the radar the most, but of all three freshman he is the biggest early draft departure risk. The kid is all sorts of athletic and has benefited majorly from being more of a do-everything guy than a focal point of the offense. He can float around and rebound, shoot a couple open kick-out three's, and stuff the stat sheet. Of all three freshmen, I think he has the biggest upside in the NBA because of his frame, athleticism, and natural ability, but I'm not sure he leaves after this year. I wouldn't expect him to stay more than two, and if McGary breaks out as a sophomore, he could bolt as well. Stauskas probably has too much of that JJ Reddick thing working against him to leave early, even though I think he is better on the move than Reddick was.

You also have to give props to the two other freshman. Spike Albrecht is not only named Spike Albrecht, but he has provided a solid 5-10 minutes of rest for Burke that wasn't really there last year, and Caris LeVert has been so good in practice that Beilein had to completely scrap the idea of redshirting him.

Add another check to the "John Beilein gets recruiting" tally sheet.

4) Speaking of Stauskas... True or False: he's the best thing to come out of Canada since "Call Me Maybe." Also: he's making over 50% of his three-pointers, which is just absolutely silly. Does he have any unique pregame rituals that might be fueling this red-hot shooting? Does he scarf down some poutine before each game? Watch "Strange Brew"?

Oh man, now you're speaking my language. I definitely rocked out to Call Me Maybe way more than any guy in his late 20's should this summer. But I digress...

Stauskas is out of his mind right now. He has Brian at MGo talking about all the records within reach and everyone else saying things like, "normally I'm more surprised when a guy hits five straight from three, but this just kinda fits." I don't know what his secret is. I do know that he has a couple of youtube videos floating around where he makes a ridiculous number of three-point attempts in his backyard. As for the Canada thing, let me refer you to this video. Other than liking Bieber and not knowing who Alanis Morrisette is (thanks for making me feel old, dick) this video firmly put me on the Nik Stauskas bandwagon. And that was before all this three-point shooting nonsense.

5) What's your expectation for this team? National title or bust? Will anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance be a crushing disappointment?

You know, at this point I'm just trying to enjoy the ride. It may sound sappy or cliche as hell, but I don't care. Michigan basketball has been some bad, dark, depressing places over the last decade and a half -- which coincidentally doubles as the time I grew to love the team. I had student tickets during the Amaker years, I used to hold Maceo Baston as my favorite player, and I would get giddy when I saw Manny Harris in the student union. I am going to savor this season for everything that its worth.

Once the Big Ten season starts to wind down and Michigan faces off against a few of the high profile teams, then I'll start to calibrate my ultimate expectations. For now all I can say is that I would be disappointed if Michigan wasn't a major player in the Big Ten title race, and failed to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Right now I'm just going to enjoy watching Burke be Burke and try to forget that Brian Ellerbe ever existed. Can you blame me?

6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?

Fair warning: I say this without having watched even a second of Iowa basketball this year, and reading nothing about the team since the preseason.

I think Michigan wins this one by about 15 points and it is one of those games that looks closer than it is because Iowa keeps things between ten and 20 points all game long. Michigan's offense is playing at a really high level, the rebounding is there like it hasn't been in the past, and even the problems that Michigan has (defensive lapses, Tim Hardaway reverting to chucking 18-footers, and the team not yet having the ability to really go for the jugular) I think the rest is enough to keep this game comfortably in hand for most of the 40 minutes.

Iowa won't get run out of the building completely, but the game shouldn't ever feel too close.

It still feels weird writing something like that about Michigan basketball.

Thanks for being a good sport, Zach. I think you're right about the score, too, unfortunately. I have very low expectations for this game. You can check out Zach and the rest of the MnB crew at Maize n Brew. You can also follow him on Twitter at @zach_travis and MnB at @MaizenBrew. The Iowa-Michigan game is in Ann Arbor on Sunday, January 6 at 11:00am CT, with television coverage from BTN.
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